As I’ve done in the last two years, I’m making notes on the movies I’ve seen this year. This section covers films I saw mostly before becoming a shut-in thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m continuing the goal for the year of ten films per decade, with the silent era-1929 counting as one decade. There aren’t any sub-goals with this entry, although I did see a lot of films nominated for the most recent Academy Awards, as well as plenty of musicals.
Movie #1/ New Movie #1/ Seen In Theaters #1/ 2020 Movie #1: Jumanji II: The Next Level
This is an okay sequel to an okay remake that has some welcome additions to the cast with Danny Glover and Danny De Vito as old men who once had a major falling out and provide decent vessels for The Rock and Kevin Hart, and Awkwafina as a new avatar for the nerdy Jewish teen lead. We’ve seen this all before, although it’s fun to see the stars inhabiting different characters. The major shortcoming is that the villain is quite lame.
Movie #2/ New Movie #2/ Seen In Theaters #2/ 2019 Movie #1: Bombshell
This is an impressive ensemble, with amazing makeup (it’s pretty hard to get A-list stars to resemble famous people this well.) It’s not subtle (a lawyer realizing that Nicole Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson did her homework is followed by a scene in which she helps her kids do their homework) but it is a decent look at different takes on a very public investigation at a strange time (the 2016 election.) I do see why it flopped (the right wouldn’t care for a movie about the toxic atmosphere of Fox News; the left doesn’t want to see a movie where some people at Fox News did the right thing) although that was the filmgoers’ loss.
Movie #3/ New Movie #3/ Seen In Theaters #3/ 2019 Movie #2: Ford VS Ferrari
The rivalry with Ferrari is more of an afterthought, as the main real conflicts seem to be between the various people who work at Ford: conflicts between different departments, as well as Matt Damon’s trying to keep Christian Bale’s in line. The race sequences are nice, and it’s an impressive tale of ingenuity and winning at all costs, that comes together nicely at the end.
Movie #4/ New Movie #4/ 1970s Movie #1: Dark Star
A decent low-budget satire of space movies notable for the directorial debut of John Carpenter, and a goofball alien that is the prototype for the xenomorph in Alien.
Movie #5/ Seen In Theaters #4/ 2019 Movie #3: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Tarantino remains very rewatchable, especially when he’s showing a crazy setting (the cusp of the arrival of New Hollywood.) I get how the mix of real people and fiction can be problematic, but it is also clear that Tarantino has given a lot of though to the nuances of the characters. And it’s all very fun.
Movie #6/ 1990s Movie #1: My Cousin Vinny
This is another film that was very fun and very rewatchable; a great fish out of water legal comedy. I could see why the Academy fell in love with Marisa Tomei; it’s a light role but she plays it so well.
Movie #7/ New Movie #5/ 1970s Movie #2: Bestije
I found this on a streaming service for Eastern European films. This Yugoslavian film executes a basic concept decently enough, of showing the villagers of an island going completely nuts during a storm. It’s the ending that sells it for me, as we see what happens when the villagers have stopped being beasts. The quite obscure female lead (it’s rather difficult to confirm her name since the named actors in the credits seem to be in other roles) is ridiculously pretty as the mysterious outsider.
Movie #8/ New Movie #6/ 2019 Movie #4: Marriage Story
This is an excellent drama of the aftermath of a collapse of a marriage, as we see the increasing costs of a necessary divorce. It’s not a dark or unpleasant film, as much as one that shows people pushed to the limit during the worst parts of an ongoing process they’ve got to navigate. It’s a bit odd that Laura Dern got an Oscar for this. She’s perfectly fine as a divorce lawyer who isn’t quite nuanced, but you do get how different people would appreciate her very differently. It’s just not something that people would usually conclude was one of the best performances of the year.
Movie #9/ New Movie #7/ Seen In Theaters #5/ 2019 Movie #5: Little Women
A lot’s been written about how satisfying Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women is for those familiar with the source material or earlier films, but it’s also exceptional for someone who has no familiarity with any of that. This might be Saoirse Ronan’s best performance as she handles Jo’s growth during various crises as a teen during the Civil War and as a young struggling writer. Florence Pugh was also a standout, taking a character who could be obnoxious but exploring the limited options behind her selfishness.
Movie #10/ Seen In Theaters #6/ 2019 Movie #6: Parasite
Watching it again after it won Best Picture, I am impressed by how well-told the story is. Joon-Ho depicts an unusual conflict between different sides, the members of whom are quite well-realized and who don’t realize what’s going on with those beneath them. The second watch did highlight just how impressive the production design is, the standout being a mansion that has to be believable as a noted architect’s residence.
Movie #11/ 1990s Movie #2: Groundhog Day
It’s a comedy worth exploring in philosophy classes with the consideration of what gives life meaning aided by a tremendous performance by Bill Murray as a reporter stuck in an absurd situation, able to show growth but sometimes regression on the way to the big epiphany. The concept of one man stuck in the same day over and over is excellent, and there are some nice twists on it, as well as explorations of the depths of the others around them.
Movie #12/ 1970s Movie #3: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Maybe it’s more of a collection of Monty Python sketches with a medieval theme than an actual storyline, but I love medieval movies, and these are great sketches.
Movie #13/ New Movie #8/ Seen In Theaters #7/ 2020 Movie #2: Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey
This R-rated Harley Quinn spotlight is a lot of fun. It does a lot, with the origin of the Birds of Prey (a group that Harley Quinn is not really a member of) and a story of Harley trying to get past being just the Joker’s girlfriend, in the midst of a Gotham City crime war. Generally, it pulls it off, making good use of what makes the characters unique.
Movie #14/ New Movie #9/ Seen In Theaters #8/ 2020 Movie #3: Sonic the Hedgehog
Since I was a little kid, Sonic was one of my favorite characters of any sorts, so I’m pretty happy that the movie didn’t suck. It had some fun with the concept of Sonic in the real world, a decent take on the character as an impulsive teen (which justifies some of the plot-induced stupidity), a serious theme in loneliness with someone unable to connect to the outside world (I’ll be curious if that translates well to the current situation), and an okay return to form for 1990s Jim Carrey. There are some cliches in the conflict between friends, but it was fun and sets up a franchise that has the potential to be better in the sequels.
Movie #15/ 2010s Movie #1: Scott Pilgrim VS The World
A quite faithful adaptation of a series of graphic novels, which has an impressive ensemble and decent musical numbers (the comic book is about a guy in a band; but it’s still rare to see that jump when going from an exclusively visual medium to a semi-musical film.)
Movie #16/ New Movie #10/ Seen In Theaters #9/ 2020 Movie #4: Bad Boys For Life
This is better than you’d expect from a sequel to two Michael Bay blockbusters with the box office and critical acclaim that would suggest. They keep the action sequences and camaraderie, but add stakes, decent new characters and a worthwhile exploration of how long guys well into middle age can keep being action heroes.
Movie #17/ 1960s Movie #1/ Criterion Edition #1: Blast of Silence
The early neo-noir has much to recommend: lovely cinematography, especially when it comes to the early 1960s New York locations, and a focus on the minutiae of being a hitman (scouting the target, obtaining weapons that require specialized modifications.) Director Allen Baron is able to explore the internal crisis of a professional killer who starts feeling lonely on Christmas in a way that doesn’t hit the expected beats.
Movie #18/ Seen In Theaters #9/ 2019 Movie #7: 1917
Seeing it again, maybe it’s a little slow at times as a result of the mostly real-time single-take approach. Maybe. But there’s so much that works spectacularly well to highlight missions where it’s dangerous even if you don’t actually encounter the enemy.
Movie #19/ New Movie #11/ 1950s Movie #1: Daddy Long Legs
The Fred Astaire/ Leslie Caron (two-time Academy Award nominee; lead in the Best Picture winner Gigi) has some impressive sequences, but can’t get past a really skeevy story of a wealthy middle-aged trust-funder falling for an 18 year old orphan who becomes roommates with his niece after he sponsors her. The film’s characters become aware that that’s a little weird, and then the focus is on why the couple works so well despite that.
Movie #20/ New Movie #12/ 2010s Movie #2: The Tribe
It’s a well-told story of a teen who comes to a new school and falls in with the wrong crowd, getting involved in very criminal behavior. It’s a standard enough coming of age story, except much much darker than usual (Larry Kramer has come up a lot in the reviews). The gimmick is that most of the characters are deaf, communicating exclusively through sign language, almost turning this into a silent film (the noise of the world still matters; there is simply the added tension that the characters are unaware of it all.) The nuance and specifics are lost, but much is gained in an unusual expressiveness where a slap or a punch is part of conversation.
Movie #21/ New Movie #13/ 1970s Movie #4: The Buddy Holly Story
This musical biopic is pretty standard. Buddy Holly faces opposition in his burgeoning music career, and keeps succeeding by not being awesome and not compromising his values. It’s strange to see Gary Busey actually giving a really good performance, and while the movie is predictable and somewhat cliched (to be fair, some of that might be due to how later films like Bohemian Rhapsody told very similar stories of a lead singer facing conflict with his bandmates) but it is a lot of fun, and gets across the personality of one of the original rock and roll stars.
Movie #22/ New Movie #14/ 1930s Movie #1: Devil Dogs of the Air
I watched this James Cagney/ Pat O’Brien pre-World War II marine film with my dad, and the main interest is the effects and the historical airplanes, rather than cliched conflicts, where there really isn’t much of an enemy (these films get a lot better in World War II, where there are greater stakes.)
Movie #23/ 2000s Movie #1/ Finnish Movie #1: Helsinki Forever
This take on Helsinki in film looks at the history of the city and the different sections, some of which are known much more to the locals than to the tourists. It’s very relaxing, and something that could be done to great effect with other cities. It could feel like a 70 minute Youtube video, but if so, it’s a very well made one.
Movie #24/ New Movie #15/ Seen In Theaters #9/ 2020 Movie #5: The Invisible Man
The Blumhouse reimagining considers the Invisible Man with a focus on the victim, ably played by Elizabeth Moss, who can obviously convey much more range than the typical horror movie screen queen (granted, there is a lot to terrify any lead here.) It explores more modern ideas of gaslighting, surveillance and abusive, powerful men. The twists are mostly excellent, although there are some questionable moments, even if one of the biggest (evidence that can prove someone’s innocence and left in the bad guy’s mansion) has tremendous and satisfying payoff at the end.
Movie #25/ New Movie #16/ 1960s Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #2: Festival
An impressive documentary capturing the folk scene in the mid-60s, with the expected standouts (lots of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary) and some legends discovered in the nick of time, so their performances are still impressive. It’s fun and there’s a lot to appreciate (teens reverently listening to an old blues man singing about his nine inch candy stick; three Bob Dylan covers in very quick succession.) After Monterey Pop and Woodstock, I’m a bit disappointed to see a documentary where they won’t typically do the full songs, especially with a much-hyped single minute of a spaced out Johnny Cash doing “Walk the Line.”
Movie #26/ 1930s Movie #2: Steamboat ‘Round the Bend
Watching the John Ford/ Will Rogers comedy again, the good bits (a history museum retrofitted for a southern audience, a steamboat race, the search for a particular revivalist preacher) do hold up, even if much of it is dated, in terms of depictions of conflicts between the educated and the swamp people of Louisiana.
Movie #27/ 1990s Movie #3: The Truman Show
It’s a clever concept; a man living in a seemingly ordinary life unaware that the rest of the world is watching, and they have some fun with it. Jim Carrey is great at depicting the dawning realization that something very strange is going on, as he starts testing the limits of the world. Ed Harris steals the show as the producer who has developed a paternal relationship with Truman, while controlling everything that’s going on in his life.
Movie #28/ 1990s Movie #4: Dazed and Confused
Linklater’s comedy gets across the aimlessness of a group of teenagers in Austin, while also featuring some iconic moments, a high amount of which come from bit player Matthew McConaughey in his film debut.
Movie #29/ Silent Movie #1: The Thief of Bagdad
This is just one of the great fantasy movies, and probably the best silent adventure fantasy film, with one of the all-time great charismatic leads in Douglas Fairbanks, and tremendous effects, sequences and production designs. There is a great sense of joy to it.
Movie #30/ New Movie #17/ Estonian Film #1/ 2019 Movie #8: Truth & Justice
This is the first Estonian film adaptation of the nation’s great novel, so it’s a relief that all involved handled it pretty well (even making the ten film short-list of best foreign language films, although not the final nominations.) I’m sure Estonian students are happy to have an alternative to reading the 550+ pages of the novel to get a sense of the major cultural touchstones. The story is intimate (set largely in a farm) but iconic, showing the struggles of a man trying to do what is right, while slowly getting corrupted and being blind to his own shortcomings. It gets the obvious stuff (one of the great neighbor rivalries in literature) as well as the subtle (the taciturn typically Estonian farmer unable to truly express himself.)
Best Film I Hadn’t Seen Before: Little Women
Best Overall: Thief of Bagdad
Best Film Seen In Theaters: 1917 (yeah, I guess I’ll rate it above Little Women and Parasite)
Biggest Relief: The most expensive Estonian movie ever, the adaptation of the country’s defining literary epic, being a really good film.
Second Biggest Relief: The Sonic the Hedgehog film being decent.